Friday, June 5, 2009

Book Review: She's Come Undone, by Wally Lamb

She is only 11.

She lives in the Kensington area of Philadelphia, a neighborhood where my family has roots and an area of the city which has seen better days.

For a week, coverage of this 11 year old girl's rape has dominated every major media outlet in the Philadelphia area.

She was on her way to school Monday morning when, allegedly, a 26 year old low-life (I can't call him a man, I'm sorry) raped her. Repeatedly. Causing enough physical damage as to require surgery and several days in the hospital.

After the media broadcast a photo of the "person of interest" purportedly responsible for this heinous crime, he was spotted by neighbors and a crowd descended on him, beating the crap out of him, keeping him in their tight grasp until police came, and landing him in the hospital. For a week, the reaction from the general public has been one of applause to debates on whether they should be charged with assault.

This story has taken hold of my heart and wrung it dry. Maybe its being a mom and having a daughter not much younger than this girl. Maybe its remembering what it's like to be 11. I can't imagine what this week must have been like for her, if she is aware of the media attention. She knows they found the suspect. All I can think about is the road ahead for this girl.

I mention all this because, while this story was dominating the local news this week in my area, I spent this week listening to Wally Lamb's 1992 debut novel, She's Come Undone. I bought the print version ages ago (apparently a first edition in hardcover) and when I saw the audio at the library, I thought this would be a good way to knock off one of my TBRs.

She's Come Undone is the story of Dolores Price, a child of divorce living with her mother and grandmother in the 1950's. The three live in the grandmother's home. Dolores' "undoing" comes at the hands of Jack Speight, one of her grandmother's tenants, who befriends 13 year old Dolores and rapes her. Lamb's prose in this scene (as well as many others throughout his novel) is searing, hot stake-through-the-heart writing. It's an incredibly powerful piece of audio (and I must give credit to Kathy Najimy for incredible narration of this story), and I found myself gripping the steering wheel much harder than I should have been.

Dolores carries this albatross of the rape with her, understandably so, throughout the next several decades of her life. As she does, I found myself alternately cheering her on. I so desperately wanted something good to happen to Dolores, for her to heal emotionally, for her to find happiness. Just as I've hoped this week for that little 11 year girl who had so much potential - and who still does - but who now has that potential weighted down with the emotional and physical scars of the rape.

There are people in Dolores' life who are by her side and who have been there all along. People she can trust. People who do, in fact, help her heal emotionally. She's Come Undone does not have a picture-perfect happily-ever-after ending and that's one of the things that I love about this novel. Life doesn't always have happy endings, or beginnings, or middles. It's full of hardships, yes, but if we're lucky, there are one or two people who believe in us.

I don't want to give too much away in this story, in case there are others who also still have this on their to-be-read list 17 years after it was first published and 12 years since it became an Oprah Book Club selection. (That was part of my reluctance, I admit, to reading this sooner; I haven't always been smitten with some of O's choices.) But know this about She's Come Undone: it's a masterpiece. (Some may not agree, and I could see how this could be a tough novel for some, given the several instances of graphic scenes and rough language.)

But I loved everything about this story - the rape notwithstanding. Still, Lamb's treatment of this is wonderfully done. So is his inclusion of other heavy-duty topics such as physical and emotional abuse, childhood obesity, and more. Oh, so much more. In the hands of a less-skillful writer, these multiple themes could have the potential to stumble upon one another, blurring the reading (or listening) experience. Somehow, Lamb makes it all work. From a scene with Dolores and her slightly unconventional (but effective, for her) therapist at a mental institution:

"I cried against his neck and he hugged me and took my shaking. I don't know how long we rocked there like that, but my sobbing and trembling was gradually overtaken by a profound exhaustion. I felt more tired than I'd ever felt in my life.
"How are you doing?" he whispered, finally. "Are you okay?"
"When I came here, I was this fat ... And now - "
"And now what, Dolores?"
"I'm empty."
He hugged me, cradling my head. "You're triumphant!" he said.

And so is this book, and so is Wally Lamb as an author.
And so, I hope, for the same for an 11 year old girl.
My rating: 5 out of 5 stars


Mrs. F-B's Books Blog said...

Thanks for a great review. this sounds like it might be a good book club book. Saw your comment on my Poetry Friday post. I was wondering how you came across my blog. You should suggest your library DO an adult summer reading program. Maybe they will, you never know!



Betty and Boo's Mommy said...

Thanks, Erin. I wish I could remember how I came across your blog, but I have to think it was via another blogger - wish I knew who - that may have had a children's book review or had you listed in their blogroll. In any event, I've been a subscriber for awhile and enjoy your posts very much.

Robin said...

I have to say, when I heard about they got that monster, I thought GOOD FOR THEM. Then I became unnerved by the whole concept of vigilante justice and how it was celebrated on the Fox 29 news. But mostly I was undone by the sight of her father in tears, watching the video of that man being taken down by people in his neighborhood who wouldn't stand for that trash being on their street. And how he said that his daughter had forever lost her ability to trust her fellow human being.

Another story that has stuck with me- both for its horrific rape scene and for its lyricism and sense of place- is Bastard Out of Carolina. A story I hesitate to recommend because you carry its burden all your life. But I have to give the author a nod, for writing something that has had a lifelong resonance.

Betty and Boo's Mommy said...

Robin, I had very similar reactions as you did ... and have heard that Bastard Out of Carolina (which I haven't read) is a tough read. I may need some distance from this subject matter after an emotional week.

DemMom said...

You know, I read this so long ago that I don't really remember it. Maybe I'll get the audio version.